Monday 21 February 2011

Review: Department 19 by Will Hill

In a secret supernatural battle that's been raging for over a century, the stakes have just been raised – and they're not wooden anymore.

When Jamie Carpenter's mother is kidnapped by strange creatures, he finds himself dragged into Department 19, the government's most secret agency.

Fortunately for Jamie, Department 19 can provide the tools he needs to find his mother, and to kill the vampires who want him dead. But unfortunately for everyone, something much older is stirring, something even Department 19 can't stand up against…

I have been sitting on this review for months, desperately wanting to tell the world about this book. However I very obediently followed the wishes of the people at Harper Collins who so kindly sent me an early proof copy back in October, but now that the March 31 publication date is fast approaching, Operation Department 19 is Go! Go! Go! and I have finally been allowed to unleash this review on the world. I know I'm not the only blogger who has been waiting impatiently to write about this book – back in early October, as proofs were sent out, there was a great deal of buzz about Department 19 on Twitter from other bloggers lucky enough to have received a copy, so much so that I started receiving emails from readers of The Book Zone, asking for more information about it. However, I did not give in to temptation and instead resorted to posting a very short, teaser piece about the book. 

So was that early buzz justified? Hell yes – every single word of it. It is possibly the best action horror story I have ever read and if managed well I can see a very bright future for it, including movie deals, video games and so on, with a franchise that could rival the megastardom of Resident Evil. I think a minority of authors these days write books with the hope that it will be picked up by a Hollywood movie company who will plough millions of dollars into turning it into a blockbuster release – if ever there was a book that deserved that sort of treatment then it is Department 19, although at no point does it feel as if Will Hill has deliberately set out with this in mind. In fact, very early on in my reading of the book it wasn't so much movie treatment I was thinking, but just how easily the plot, characters, monsters, locations, weapons and vehicles would transfer over to the PS3 or X-Box as a superb First Person Shooter.

Permit me please to remind you what Will Hill wrote for The Book Zone for my Coming Up in 2011 feature:

It's not easy being a teenage boy. It's much, much harder if the following things are true:

- Your dad died in front of you.
- You're being bullied.
- You have no friends.
- You and your mum are drifting apart.
- You get attacked by a beautiful vampire girl while the second oldest vampire in the world takes your mother hostage and drives you into the arms of the most highly classified department of the British government, where you find out that pretty much everything you thought you knew, about your life and everything else, was a lie.

Welcome to Jamie Carpenter's world.

Jamie is the hero of my first novel,
Department 19, publishing in March, a hundred-mile-an-hour supernatural thriller, full of old-school vampires who would rather tear your throat out than kiss your face off, and who can't go in the sun because they will burst into flames. There's no sparkling here - just an action-packed race against time, from Victorian London to 1920s New York, from the Russian wilderness to the tiny island of Lindisfarne, where the most evil creature on the planet lies in wait...

I'm not sure I need to say much more about the plot than that, but I'm not sure I can hold myself back as months after reading this book I am still excited about it. The basic premise revolves around one simple question: What if Bram Stoker's Dracula had not been a work of fiction? From this one question we find ourselves joining the dots and the only conclusion we can come to is that if it wasn't fiction then the only possible alternative is that his much loved story is in fact an account of a real life battle between good and evil. Sometimes great books are born from such simple questions, and Department 19 is one of these as it follows the assumption that if Dracula was real, then so were Van Helsing, Harker, Holmwood et al. I can just imagine the excitement Will Hill must have felt as his synapses started firing as he answered every subsequent question that arose, making connection after connection and thereby coming up with the idea for the secret branch of the government that is Department 19.

What really makes Department 19 something much more than your average action horror is the back story that Will Hill has created. Not content to have his young hero battling all kinds of evil, he makes sure that the reader truly believes in the world he has created. The action occasionally leaps back in time, and as readers we are able to follow the adventures of Van Helsing and gang in the early years of the Department. We also get to find out how Jamie's ancestor, John Carpenter, first met Frankenstein, saved his life, and then the latter making a vow that goes on to be honoured for generations of the Carpenter family. Oh, did I not say that Frankenstein's monster was real as well? Keep up – surely if Dracula was real then Big Frank has to be as well, but this time he is fighting for the good guys. If you trawl back through the Spill The Ink blog you will see photos of some of Will's handwritten notes, showing family trees of his characters, a list of the previous commanding officers of Department 19, a guide to the strengths and weaknesses of vampires, and even a detailed list of authorisation codes for the various members of Department 19. And I am sure that this is just a tiny selection of his notes - the detail the author must have gone in to to ensure that his world seemed real must be hundreds of pages in length, and that's in addition to the research he must have carried out into the various historical aspects of his back story.

As well as great back story, Will Hill is also highly skilled at other aspects of the craft of writing. This book has a multitude of great characters, some of whom are not fully fleshed out in this first instalment, but promise to be interesting members of the cast in future stories. Best of all, some of the best characters in the story are the vampires themselves (hey... everyone loves a good villain!). These are certainly not the insipid, vacuous blood suckers that we have had to endure in recent years - Will Hill has drawn on the nastiest examples of these creatures to create his monsters for his inspiration, and in doing so has reclaimed the vampire from the girly, fawning Twilight brigade.These monsters are Homicidal (and yes, I meant that with a capital H): think the sheer single-minded evilness of Kurt Barlow from 'Salem's Lot, the ambition of Deacon Frost from Blade, the sadistic bloodlust of Marlow from 30 Days of Night. Nasty, every one of them, and that is what Alexandru, Valentin and their various minions are like. However just as all these vampires from the annals of horror are very different characters, so too are Will Hill's creations, each with their own personality traits and motivations.  

Mr Hill also knows how to write action scenes that leave the reader breathless; over the years I have read many action thrillers, both for kids and adults, and Will Hill's writing of the all-important fight and chase scenes is up there with the best of them. Of course, many of these scenes involve Jamie, Frank et al battling against the evil vampiric hordes, but thanks to the imagination of the author they have a lot more than wooden stakes in their armoury. These vampire hunters are like the British SAS, US Navy SEALs and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal all rolled into one, and they come armed to the teeth with UV cannons, MP5 machine guns, armoured vehicles and best of all, the T-18 pneumatic launcher, aka the T-Bone. One squeeze on the trigger of this marvel of ingenuity and a metal stake explodes from its barrel, with devastating effect for any vampire that just happens to be in its line of fire. But that's not all: said stake has a trailing wire attached to it, which then pulls the stake back into the barrel, and it is reloaded and ready to fire all over again. Genius! How I would love to see Edward Cullen on the receiving end of this weapon.   

On top of all this the dialogue that Will Hill writes also flows well throughout the story, and is never intrusive or unrealistic. It fits the characters, and the various time periods in which we see them. And this is his d├ębut novel – I imagine there will be many an aspiring author sticking pins in Will Hill voodoo dolls whilst going slowly green with envy.

I read an early review of Department 19 recently, written by someone as part of the Amazon Vine programme. Said reviewer, at the end of an otherwise cracking review, questioned whether Will Hill's treatment of Stoker and Shelley in their respective flashback scenes showed disrespect to these two authors. Another reviewer questioned the credibility of some of the plot. I think these reviewers take themselves a little too seriously, obviously know little about teen fiction and need to carefully remove the self-righteous rods from their proverbials. To the first I would ask how can an author who has written a book that treats the creations of these two authors with such reverence be accused of disrespecting their characters? I would not be surprised if many kids who have not yet discovered the joys of Dracula and Frankenstein will actually be encouraged to pick up these books for the first time following a reading of Department 19. And to reviewer number two I would proclaim that teen boys (and many, many girls) are going to totally love this book – they won't care about 100% credibility when there is such an exciting, fast-paced, well-written story to hold their attention. At what age did this reviewer lose the ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy a full-on action adventure story for what it is?

Department 19 is the first book in a series, but unlike many books like this it does bring the main plot of the story to something of a natural conclusion. However, Will Hill very cleverly tacks on a couple of epilogues that have the reader salivating even more for a sequel as he teases us with a couple of very short scenes that in just a few pages set us up for some very exciting plot developments that no doubt will appear in the sequel. I have no idea how many books are planned in this series at the moment, but I am more than happy to keep on reading them for years to come if they are as good as Department 19.

Back in November some bloggers got a little carried away on Twitter by proclaiming Department 19 to be the next Harry Potter. If I'm brutally honest I cannot agree with this as the secret behind Harry Potter's success was its cross-generational appeal, and it was only in the later books in the series that the plot started to get a lot darker and less kid-friendly, but by then everyone was already hooked. Department 19 will sadly not achieve this broad spectrum of appeal as it is certainly not suitable for younger kids and may create a few premature heart attacks amongst the blue-rinse brigade – it is after all an action horror story with many a gory moment, and any movie made would certainly not get a PG rating. We have also heard many publishers in recent years claiming that this new book or that new book will be the next HP – I remember Chicken House saying something akin to this about the Tunnels series (good, but hardly flying off the shelves HP-style), and I wouldn't be surprised if Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books were also touted like this at some point. However, in my mind Department 19 is far better than all of these, and in this case I feel the hype is very much deserved. I have already stated that another book will have to be pretty darn special to beat Department 19 to the top spot in my list of Books of the Year for 2011 – I am more than happy to be proven wrong as that would mean yet another outstanding book is on the shelves, helping even more young people to develop an enjoyment of reading for pleasure.

Department 19 is published by Harper Collins in the UK and is due to be published on 31st March, although I wouldn't be surprised if it started to appear in stores before this date. On the same date it is scheduled to be published by Razorbill in the USA. There are promo videos online for both editions, I have popped them both at the end of this post - I'll leave it to you to decide which one you prefer.


  1. I'm really looking forward to this one! I got an invite to pre-launch thing-a-ma-bob at HC to listen to Will Hill talk about the book, and for once I looks like I might be able to get down London to attend one of these things! :)

  2. only read 2 chapters but it is very good

  3. I liked _Department 19_ overall, but the nitpicker in me could not overlook some mistakes.

    First, the author makes a big deal over the exact weaponry carried by the Department 19 operators (MP5s and Glock 17s), but then makes a noob mistake of calling the magazine a "clip". (Clips and magazines are not the same thing - the terms are not interchangeble) This might be overlooked, since Jaimie had probably not handled guns before his 2-day intensive training, but then he aced the simulator test like an elite, highly-trained operator! Firearms may be easier to use than swords, but advanced proficiency cannot be acquired so quickly.

    Second, after Stevenson was Turned into a werewolf, Morris "pulled the Glock from his belt for a second time" and "cocked the gun", before killing Stevenson. [p483]
    This is patently idiotic!
    A Glock does not require to be cocked, and there is no way to do it, since a Glock has no hammer. If the gun was carried Israeli-style, with the chamber empty, then the slide would need to be racked in order to fire the first shot, but Morris had already used the gun shortly before.

    Technical errors like this made the story less than it might otherwise have been. If you _will_ give your readers specific details, at least make sure they are correct!

  4. OmikronZeta takes himself way too seriously. If he is so fond of realistic details and every euqipment mentioned to perfection, he should go back to reading weapons / sword manufacturing novels

  5. This book is bloody brilliant!

  6. if you click on department 19 trailer 2 after the top video is over its just a bunch of COD footage but the it says department 19 at the end

  7. I have read 7 chapters and love it so far apart from when it gose on go other people but I hope it all cums together
    Great book tho

  8. This is a great book. It is that type of book you just can't put down! I love it, and i can't wait to get on with the series! (I just finished The Rising.)

  9. If you don't wish to read spoilers than don't read my review.

    If I were rating this book it would rate a one out of five, maybe even a 1.5. Why? The characters were atrocious.

    Jamie is too angry, yes he has a right to be angry but to be furious for how many years? It's unrealistic. It makes him flatter than paper, and his romance with the vampire girl was unneeded.

    Frankenstein accepts that Julian Carpenter betrayed Blacklight, they all do! It was weak at best, why not just hide Jamie and his wife away after he killed whatever-her-name-was? His superiors could have said they were going into the witness protection agency. He hardly fights for Julian's honor, what a friend. His whole reason for protecting the Carpenters is weak as well. Why would Valentin want to kill him? He's all about parties why not keep Frankenstein as an oddity to show around, have people laugh at the hideous monster while they are beautiful. His death is far too sudden as well. Alexandru's SECOND werewolf? Where was it ever mentioned he had more than one? For that matter why did he only have TWO? I would have at least 4 patrolling the island.

    On to Thomas Morris. Who would think that vampires had the ability to resurrect the dead? Why would he ruin his family name further? Yes they made his father step down and that resulted in him killing himself but why decide that everything his family had stood for had to fall? Everything he was taught to respect was thrown out the window while he over-reacted.

    Alexandru, I have a love of sociopathic characters but he was just an idiot. His death was far too obvious. Didn't SOMEONE see that Jamie was shooting the base of the cross? Maybe one of the many vampires he had could look and say 'Huh, might want to move about 5 feet to the left boss.' I hate villains who take the game of killing too seriously. Why not just kill Jamie's mother and go about his merry way? I understand his lust for revenge but and eye for an eye eh?

    The only saving grace for this book were the gore and my interest in Matt. Poor kid's in a coma the entire book and I just want him to wake up and get buddy-buddy with Jamie, think about the awesome friendship the two could have! He could be like the Oracle to Jamie's batman, except not paraplegic. Nope we get him waking up at the end and saying 'Fuck this shit' which is a reasonable reaction I suppose, just not what I wanted. The gore was amazing, though it could have used more sensory details for me.

    Am I nit-picky? Not particularly. Do I want meaningful characters? YES.

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